Student View
Article

Left: Generations of Americans have thought of Columbus, shown here arriving at a Caribbean island in 1492, as a hero.
Right: Protests like this one in Seattle, Washington, have condemned the explorer’s impact on Native Americans.

Ho/Naval Museum/AFP/Getty Images (Caribbean Island); Elaine Thompson/AP Images (protest)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.6


C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.2, Civ.9, Civ.10, Civ.14, Eco.1, Geo.2, Geo.7, Geo.9, Geo.12, His.1, His.2, His.3, His.5


NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Individuals, groups, and institutions

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

CHALLENGING COLUMBUS

Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World transformed the globe. But many Americans are now taking a hard look at his legacy.

Probably no single journey  changed the world more ­profoundly than that of Christopher Columbus. For hundreds of years, his story was the stuff of legend: how the Italian navigator sailed west from Spain in 1492, braving uncharted seas, and “discovered” America.

The Founders of the United States often cited Columbus as an inspiration for their experiment of a nation dedicated to the idea of freedom. In fact, the young country was often referred to as Columbia in honor of the explorer. And generations of Americans have celebrated him on the second Monday in October: Columbus Day.

But today, many Americans are questioning this history—and Columbus Day itself. Columbus couldn’t discover a place where millions of people already lived, they say. Worse, honoring him ignores how he—and the waves of European settlers that arrived in his wake—forced the indigenous peoples of the Americas off their land.

To professor Leo Killsback of Arizona State University, Columbus Day is not a time of celebration but a reminder of “historic crimes” to Native Americans.

This point of view has inspired a growing trend. Last year, Boulder, Colorado, voted to transform Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day. “The day should not be about the people who came, but the people who were already here,” says Mayor Suzanne Jones. More than 30 other cities and the states of South Dakota and Alaska have similar celebrations. (Some continue to observe Columbus Day as well.)

Other Americans defend Columbus. They say it was his bold vision that enabled Europeans to brave the journey to a new land.

So was Columbus a villain or a hero? Some 525 years after he set sail, Americans are struggling with that question.

Probably no single journey changed the world more than that of Christopher Columbus. For hundreds of years, his story was the stuff of legend. In 1492, the brave Italian navigator sailed west from Spain. He crossed unmapped seas and “discovered” America.

The Founders of the United States often named Columbus as an inspiration. His story encouraged them to develop a nation dedicated to the idea of freedom. In fact, the young country was often called Columbia in honor of the explorer. And, for more than 100 years, Americans have celebrated Columbus Day on the second Monday in October.

But today, many Americans are questioning Columbus Day and its history. Columbus could not discover a place where millions of people already lived, they say. Worse, honoring him overlooks how he, and the flood of European settlers who arrived afterward, forced the indigenous peoples of the Americas off their land.

Columbus Day is not a time of celebration for professor Leo Killsback of Arizona State University. To him, it is a reminder of historic crimes to Native Americans.

This point of view has led to a growing trend. Last year, Boulder, Colorado, voted to rename Columbus Day. It would now be called Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “The day should not be about the people who came, but the people who were already here,” says Mayor Suzanne Jones. More than 30 other cities and the states of South Dakota and Alaska have similar celebrations. Some still continue to observe Columbus Day as well.

Other Americans defend Columbus. They say it was his bold vision that made it possible for Europeans to brave the journey to a new land.

So was Columbus a villain or a hero? Americans are struggling with that question 525 years after he set sail.

Columbus’s Voyages

Born in the Italian city of Genoa, Columbus was a man of great ambition. In 1492, he persuaded Spain’s king and queen to fund a journey to what Europeans called the Indies—China, Japan, and India.

Columbus was convinced by the ancient writings of travelers that those lands held great treasures of gold, silver, silk, and spices.
 
At that time, Europeans’ contact with Asia was rare because getting there was so difficult. The trip—by ship around Africa and Asia or over land routes controlled by hostile armies—was long and dangerous. But Columbus proposed a bold new scheme: to reach Asia by sailing west through open sea.

Born in Genoa, Italy, Columbus was a very ambitious man. In 1492, he persuaded Spain’s king and queen to pay for a journey to the Indies. In his time, that is what Europeans called China, Japan, and India.

Columbus had studied the ancient writings of other explorers. He believed the faraway lands they wrote about held great treasures of gold, silver, silk, and spices.

At that time, European travel to Asia was rare. That was because getting there was so challenging. People either sailed east around Africa and Asia, or traveled over land routes. Sea routes were long, and hostile armies made trips by land dangerous. But Columbus had a bold new idea. He planned to reach Asia by sailing west over the Atlantic Ocean.

Like other people of his time, Columbus didn’t know that two continents would be in his way: the Americas. So when he landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, after an 11-week journey from Spain, Columbus thought he had reached the Indies (see map, below).

That December, Columbus claimed an island in the Caribbean Sea for Spain, calling it Hispaniola. (Today, the island is split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) The explorer praised the island’s people, the Taino, for their generosity. Yet he also let his men loot and kidnap the Taino in search of their riches.

Columbus made three other journeys to the New World, as Europeans soon began calling the Americas. With each, the Taino suffered. Many were sold into slavery. Countless others died from smallpox and other European diseases to which they had no resistance. Within decades, most of them had been wiped out.


Like other people of his time, Columbus did not know that two continents would be in his way: the Americas. After an 11-week journey from Spain, he landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. Columbus thought he had reached the Indies (see map, below).

That December, Columbus claimed an island in the Caribbean Sea for Spain. He called it Hispaniola. (Today, the island is split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) The explorer praised the island’s people, the Taino, for their generosity. Yet he also let his men rob and kidnap the Taino as they searched for riches.

Columbus made three other journeys to the Americas, called “the New World” by Europeans. With each visit, the Taino suffered. Many were sold into slavery. Countless others died from smallpox and other European diseases that they had no defenses against. Most of them were wiped out within decades.

Built on Indian Lands

Yet Columbus’s voyages transformed the world. European  powers rushed to build settlements in the New World. When the native people got in their way, say scholars, the newcomers pushed them aside.

Later, after the U.S. was founded and began expanding west across the continent, Congress repeatedly forced treaties on Native Americans that stripped them of their ancestral homelands. America was built “on lands which Indians were essentially forbidden to keep,” says professor Ron Welburn of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Benjamin Railton, a historian at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, traces this treatment directly to Columbus: “[Columbus saw] this place as open and available for European possession.” U.S. settlers merely continued this treatment, he says.

Yet Columbus’s voyages changed the world. European countries rushed to colonize the New World. Scholars say that when the native people got in their way, the newcomers pushed them aside.

Later, the U.S. was founded. As it grew, it expanded west across the continent. Again and again, Congress forced treaties on Native Americans that took away their homelands. America was built “on lands which Indians were essentially forbidden to keep,” says Ron Welburn. He is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Benjamin Railton is a historian at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He connects that treatment of Indians directly to Columbus. “[Columbus saw] this place as open and available for European possession.” U.S. settlers merely continued this treatment, he says.

Columbus’s Achievement

Still, many Americans continue to admire Columbus. In particular, Italian-Americans take pride in the explorer, holding Columbus Day parades in New York and other cities.

Historian William Connell of Seton Hall University in New Jersey views Columbus Day as a tribute to an important American trait: diversity. That was an explicit goal of Benjamin Harrison, who in 1892 became the first president to proclaim a celebration of Columbus.

At the time, Italian immigrants “were near the bottom rung in American society,” Connell has written. Harrison intended Columbus Day “to celebrate our land and its many peoples.”

“Columbus was definitely not a saint,” Connell says. Yet he believes it’s wrong to blame the explorer for every crime that came after his arrival. In his view, Columbus’s achievement is undeniable. His linking of the New World with the Old was “a world-changing occasion such as has rarely happened in human history.”

Still, many Americans continue to admire Columbus. Italian-Americans are especially proud of the explorer. They celebrate Columbus Day with parades held in New York and other cities.

William Connell is a historian at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Connell sees Columbus Day as a way to honor diversity, an important American quality. That was a key goal of President Benjamin Harrison. In 1892, he officially proclaimed that Americans should celebrate Columbus.

At the time, Italian immigrants were treated poorly. They “were near the bottom rung of American society,” Connell has written. Harrison saw Columbus Day as a way “to celebrate our land and its many peoples.”

“Columbus was definitely not a saint,” Connell says. Yet he believes it is wrong to blame the explorer for every crime that came after his arrival. In Connell’s view, Columbus’s achievement is a major one. His linking of the New World with the Old was “a world-changing occasion such as has rarely happened in human history.”

Bleak Conditions for Native Americans

Today, experts agree that Native Americans are suffering. According to 2014 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent live in poverty, the highest of any race group.

Today, experts agree that Native Americans are suffering. According to 2014 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent live in poverty. That is the highest of any race group in the U.S.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters (Indigenous Peoples’ Day festival)

Some cities hold Indigenous Peoples Day festivals like this one as “counter celebrations” to Columbus Day.

Railton blames much of this on the “bleak” conditions on Indian reservations. These areas were created by the U.S. government starting in the 19th century for American Indians forced off their lands.

Railton says that reservations have kept Native Americans isolated from other Americans, many of whom see Indians only as part of a tragic past.

Railton blames much of this on the “bleak” conditions on Indian reservations. These areas were created in the 19th century by the U.S. government for American Indians to live on after they were forced off their lands.

Railton says that reservations have kept Native Americans separated from other Americans, who see Indians as just a part of a tragic past.

Two Holidays?

Confronting the present reality—and its connection to the treatment of Native Americans since Europeans arrived in the New World—is behind the push to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

But should Columbus Day be eliminated completely in the process? Not everyone who backs Indigenous Peoples Day thinks so.

In Railton’s “ideal world,” Americans would address a difficult past by holding celebrations of both Columbus and indigenous peoples. “These back-to-back days could allow us to think in depth about the European and Native American threads throughout the history of the Americas,” he says.

Connell has come to a similar conclusion. The “Columbus Discussion” is a good thing, he writes. “It reminds us—and our students—that history is messy.” It’s absolutely necessary “to have these discussions—to celebrate the good that has come out of [Columbus], while also pondering the bad.”

Some Americans are now connecting today’s reality to the treatment of Native Americans since Europeans arrived in the New World. This is the reason behind the push to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

But should Columbus Day be erased completely in the process? Not everyone who supports Indigenous Peoples’ Day thinks so.

In Railton’s “ideal world,” Americans can face this tough past by celebrating Columbus and indigenous peoples. “These back-to-back days could allow us to think in depth about the European and Native American threads throughout the history of the Americas,” he says.

Connell has come to a similar conclusion. The “Columbus Discussion” is a good thing, he writes. “It reminds us—and our students—that history is messy.” It is absolutely necessary “to have these discussions—to celebrate the good that has come out of [Columbus],” while also thinking about the bad.

CORE QUESTION: What are some of the arguments for keeping and for eliminating Columbus Day?

Historic Accident

When searching for the Indies in 1492, Columbus was off by about 9,000 miles. We can plot his first voyage on a map by using lines of latitude and longitude—a system of intersecting imaginary lines that assigns a precise location to any place on Earth.

When searching for the Indies in 1492, Columbus was off by about 9,000 miles. We can plot his first voyage on a map by using lines of latitude and longitude—a system of intersecting imaginary lines that assigns a precise location to any place on Earth.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®
Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Latitude is measured in degrees (°) north (N) and south (S) of the equator, an imaginary line that circles the middle of the globe at 0°. Lines of latitude increase up to 90°N (at the North Pole) or 90°S (at the South Pole).

Latitude is measured in degrees (°) north (N) and south (S) of the equator, an imaginary line that circles the middle of the globe at 0°. Lines of latitude increase up to 90°N (at the North Pole) or 90°S (at the South Pole).

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Longitude measures distance in degrees east (E) and west (W) of the prime meridian, an imaginary line at 0° that passes through London, England. Longitude increases up to 180° as you move east or west.

Longitude measures distance in degrees east (E) and west (W) of the prime meridian, an imaginary line at 0° that passes through London, England. Longitude increases up to 180° as you move east or west.

MAP SKILLS

1. What lines on a map are used to measure distance north and south of the equator?
2. Longitude measures distance east and west of what imaginary line?
3. In what city did Columbus begin and end his first voyage?
4. On which island in the Bahamas did Columbus first land?
5. What named line of latitude runs through the Bahamas?
6. On what date did Columbus reach Hispaniola?
7. Which Caribbean island that Columbus reached on his first voyage is farthest west?
8. The Canary Islands are located at about which line of latitude?
9. Columbus’s ships were separated at which line of longitude?
10. What city is located at about 52°N, 0°W? On which continent can it be found?

1. What lines on a map are used to measure distance north and south of the equator?
2. Longitude measures distance east and west of what imaginary line?
3. In what city did Columbus begin and end his first voyage?
4. On which island in the Bahamas did Columbus first land?
5. What named line of latitude runs through the Bahamas?
6. On what date did Columbus reach Hispaniola?
7. Which Caribbean island that Columbus reached on his first voyage is farthest west?
8. The Canary Islands are located at about which line of latitude?
9. Columbus’s ships were separated at which line of longitude?
10. What city is located at about 52°N, 0°W? On which continent can it be found?

Like what you see? Then you'll love Junior Scholastic, our Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)